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Montana Legislative Panel Adopts New COVID-19 Guidelines

A panel of Montana state legislative leaders adopted new guidelines Friday for holding the session during the coronavirus pandemic. The move came one day after a state lawmaker announced he tested positive for COVID-19.

Lawmakers are now expected to immediately notify legislative leaders if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19 and they’re advised to notify the local health department to begin contact tracing.

Masks are also highly encouraged for all legislators and visitors, as are daily temperature checks when entering the capitol.

Members of the Republican-controlled Legislative Leadership COVID-19 Response Panel adopted the rules with a 6 to 2 vote split on party lines. The panel was formed last month to flexibly manage virus precautions while the session’s underway.

“We definitely need to look at the different protocols out there. Again, this is the launching point," says Panel Chairman and Republican Senate President Pro Temp Jason Ellsworth.

Ellsworth and other legislative leaders learned Thursday that Republican Rep. David Bedey is quarantining away from the Capitol after testing positive for COVID-19.

“He’s not experiencing any symptoms,” says Ellsworth.

Bedey came into contact with the virus via a non-legislative person before the session began Monday, according to a statement from state Senate Majority Spokesperson Kyle Schmauch.

Democratic House Minority Leader Kim Abbott regretted the lack of protocols in place before Bedey’s positive COVID-19 test. She’d like the panel to consider encouraging legislative staffers to work remotely, altering committee rules to encourage remote public comment and shifting committee work spaces to larger rooms.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour said lawmakers are forced to make tough decisions when colleagues and members of the public ignore county health mandates related to mask wearing and social distancing while in public sections of the Capitol, like hallways.

“I had a bill in Tax Committee and I walked out of the room and there was at least probably 25 people outside of the tax room. And I went back into the tax room and I tried to decide how should I get past those people to get down to my office," Cohenour said.

More than 20 remote public commenters urged the panel to adopt more stringent COVID-19 precautions during Friday’s meeting. The panel is expected to consider more measures Tuesday.